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California College Students Still Love Driving, Study Finds

As alternate transportation options have become more widespread, students at California Polytechnic State University have shown no signs of declining car use, according to a study examining car commutes.

Students, faculty and staff in one of California’s most prototypical college towns have shown little interest in ditching the car, despite commutes getting longer while remaining auto-dependent.

These were the findings of a recent study at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, which aimed to explore campus commutes and greenhouse gas emissions. Cal Poly was perhaps a fitting venue for the research, given that the institution recently made an effort to reduce rates of driving among its first-year students. Ultimately, however, the study found an increase in vehicle miles traveled by students, despite the interventions to restrict parking — and by extension, driving — on campus for first-year students.

The study, which was conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in California, found that when students were allowed to drive, they did. And simply restricting driving for first-year students was not enough to change driving behavior over time.

“We were really optimistic that certainly we’d see less driving from those first-year students,” said Carole Turley Voulgaris, one of the authors of the report, in an interview with Government Technology last month. “And the hope was that after that first year they would realize how wonderful it is to be car-free, and that would set habits going forward, and we’d see this reduction among first-year students, and then as they became second-year students, they would be less car-dependent than previous cohorts of second-year students.

“What we found is that when they were able to have access to cars again, they took advantage of that opportunity,” she remarked.

Through surveys and other research methods, the study followed students as they moved through their college years at Cal Poly. Only about 11 percent of first-year students drove alone to campus in 2018 — the first class of first-year students with restrictions placed on who could park on campus. The next year, when the student parking restrictions were lifted, 31 percent of students began driving to campus. Nearly 50 percent of those same students reported walking to campus in 2018. But then that number fell to about 37 percent the next year.

Other groups of students also showed little interest in walking to campus when they didn’t have to. Some 60 percent of students belonging to the class of 2018 walked to class in their first year. By the time they were seniors, only 18 percent walked to class, according to the study. Less than 2 percent of faculty and staff walked to work at Cal Poly, regardless of year.

Bicycle use also declined among second and third-year students, according to the study. Transit use showed mixed results, increasing for some student groups, while decreasing for others. However, in 2018 transit use sat at about 13 percent for all groups.

The findings demonstrated the need by campus communities to offer a range of transportation options for students and others, said Voulgaris. This thinking is not out of line from what a number of transit and transportation officials have expressed when thinking about urban mobility.

“Cities that are most aggressive about carbon in the U.S. have also been working the hardest to encourage alternatives to the automobile, and sometimes have a hard time holding these two thoughts simultaneously,” said Jeff Allen, executive director of Forth, an EV advocacy group in Portland, Ore., speaking during a recent webinar.

“We want to encourage alternatives to the car,” he added. “We want to make sure that people have safe, affordable, clean choices so that they don’t always have to get in the car and drive themselves. And, if people are choosing to drive, that they’re [driving] clean electric vehicles. And there’s a tension between those that we’re dealing with in a number of places.”

Sharable bikes and e-scooters are still absent in San Luis Obispo, though the city is considering a bike-share pilot.

“That combination of policies probably needs to include both carrots and sticks,” remarked Voulgaris, “both making it easier to choose alternatives to driving alone to campus, and then also putting policies in place that make it more difficult to [drive] to campus.”

The study in San Luis Obispo — an almost-idealized small California city with its historic and highly walkable downtown — also found that trips are getting longer, further contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, another transportation trend seen in a number of cities. The average commute distance for the Cal Poly community increased from 5.3 miles in 2018 to 6.4 miles in 2019.

When looking more closely at the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, students as a bloc tend to generate more GHGs than faculty and staff because there’s simply more of them, said Voulgaris.

Faculty and staff, however, tend to drive farther distances as well as operate older cars, which may not be as efficient as newer autos. Efforts to expand opportunities for ride-sharing in the form of van pools, public transit or other forms of carpooling could be areas for the university to explore to reduce vehicle miles and GHGs, said Voulgaris.

Officials from both the city of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly did not immediately return requests to comment of the commuter report.

Also, other steps could be taken to build student housing adjacent to campus and requiring students to use it could help to create a more sustainable community, said Voulgaris.

Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data, a transportation technology company that consulted on the Cal Poly commuter study, pointed out that if trips can be reduced to say, one mile, it becomes a lot easier to convince travelers to ditch the car.

“It’s interesting to think about the construct of transit-oriented development in the context of campuses,” said Voulgaris. “Universities are limited in the amount of money they have available to spend on building housing. But they do have a lot of control over where the commuters live, in particular, their students, to a greater degree than say, a large corporate campus would have.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.